Friday, October 17, 2003

Home Coming

I'm at Memorial Library, where I'm resting from postering the new #1 Dad gig, which is every Tuesday at 8:00 at the Public House, 680 W. Washington Ave. in Madison, WI. You should really come. If you've never seen us, #1 Dad is the acoustic duo comprising guitarist Ed Larson and me. #1 Dad plays country music--classic country, and our own--and we fucking rock.

Having gotten that out of the way, I just want to tell you that it's homecoming weekend here in Madison, lair of the University of Wisconsin Badgers (do badgers dwell in lairs?), and homecoming parade made its way down State Street as I postered. Let me tell you, it is one nutty scene down there, and the only thing keeping it from being completely out of control is that it's early Friday evening, so not everyone has had time to put down a case of Blatz yet. Give them time.

But what I wanted to tell you about is the two snippets of conversation I overheard. Not conversations, even. Lines. I heard these from people walking in the opposite direction.

The first one involves Jamba Juice, a local smoothie emporium. The line: "Jamba Juice is, like..."

I guess you have to live in Madison to understand why that's funny.

The other line: "I smoked pot earlier today." I think this line would be funny for anyone to overhear on a city street, but it's even funnier in Madison.

But then I overheard something that depressed me a little. The UW marching band had finished parading and had sort of gathered in the middle of Langdon Street. They were getting a pep talk about the Big Game with Purdue tomorrow, and the kids in the band were yelping and chanting the way kids in marching bands do.

Just then, a group of fratty looking dudes walked by, and one of them screamed, mockingly, "YEEAAAH!!!!"

And his friend added: "GO WIND SECTION!!!!"

And I was transported back to years ago, when I was in a school band--an 8th grade concert band, which was sort of the feeder to the prizewinning high-school marching band of the fundamentalist Christian K-12 I attended through 8th grade. And I remembered how supremely self-conscious I felt about the fact that marching band members at this school were routinely mocked and ridiculed by the more popular kids, especially the football players. And I remembered how I desperately tried to act "cool" in band. Someday I'll show you the yearbook picture so you can see what I mean: I really didn't want to be in that photo that day, or in the band, period. All because athletic lunks conspired to make musicians feel bad for being musicians.

(At my high school, a crunchy prep school, these maddening class distinctions didn't exist: there was neither football team nor marching band.)

As I walked by these musicians being ridiculed, I looked down at the stack of posters in my hand for my concert, and I felt enormous empathy for those kids. And I wanted to tell them, keep blowing your horns, kids. There's nothing finer than bringing a little music into the world.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Hack is not a four-letter word. Okay, it is

I can't think of a good reason not to, so I'm going to start posting the stuff I write for Isthmus newspaper, which doesn't put most of its stuff on the web. Here's a theater review and some short movie reviews I wrote for the edition (October 17, 2003) hitting the streets today. You may notice here and again that I review your Z-grade flicks.


Toned-down Twain
Big River takes the edge off Huckleberry Finn [p.24]

By Kenneth Burns

It is the nastiest joke in a nasty novel, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck tells Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally about a steamboat accident, and she asks, "Good gracious! anybody hurt?" Huck responds, "No'm. Killed a nigger." Sally replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

So you could expect to brace yourself when the moment arrives in Madison Family Theatre Company's production of Big River, the 1985 Broadway musical based on Huckleberry Finn. After all, no one likes to hear the n-word. But here is how Madison Family Theatre Company renders the exchange (which William Hauptman's book for some reason shifts to Huckleberry Finn and Tom's Uncle Silas):

Silas: Anybody hurt?
Huck: No, sir.
Silas: Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.

Artistic director Nancy Thurow cuts the word nigger here and elsewhere, even though it appears in Hauptman's book. This might unsettle anyone who admires Huckleberry Finn and loathes the fact that it is, according to the American Library Association, the fifth most censored book of the last decade. Madison Family Theatre Company seems not to trust that audiences can correctly process a word that Twain, no slouch when it came to esthetics, employed deliberately.

Perhaps this is being excessively touchy. Certainly the word nigger may be inappropriate for children, and this is a family production. Yet the show preserves, thankfully, much about the novel that is family-unfriendly: four-letter words; drunken, murderous rages; grisly torture. Let's face it: Huckleberry Finn is not a children's book. It is a fairly anguished, very adult meditation on America's race problem and happens to have an adolescent for a hero. Maybe it is folly to base a musical on such a book, but at least the 1985 production did not shy, as Madison Family Theatre Company does, from preserving Twain's contentious, carefully chosen language.

The bowdlerizing is a pity, because this Big River has a lot to recommend it, especially its Jim, Gregory Brumfield, who sings like an angel. Country-music aficionados will enjoy the songs by the legendary Roger Miller, and although no single number attains "King of the Road"-level greatness, fans of the tunesmith will recognize his subversive wordplay and unapologetic sentimentality throughout. The finest song is Tom Sawyer's "Hand for the Hog," which makes an absurd case for replacing the dog with the pig as man's best friend. This is the kind of perfectly executed non sequitur out of which Miller built a career.

Now playing

Good Boy!: In this gentle special-effects comedy, all dogs are colonialists from outer space whom the imperium calls home for botching the domination, and it's up to one apple-cheeked lad (Liam Aiken) to keep the pooches here on Earth, where they're loved. A surplus of scatalogical jokes suggests a writing team out of ideas, but Matthew Broderick, Brittany Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave turn in amiable performances as the voices of the space dogs.

The House of the Dead: Some young people seek out a rave on an island, only to discover that the party has been gate-crashed by murderous, surprisingly athletic ghouls. The twist on the ancient naked-teenagers-devoured-by-zombies formula is action sequences staged to resemble the video game the film is based on, but watching these proves about as thrilling as watching someone play video games.

The Navigators: The British government turns the train system over to private companies, and a group of Yorkshire rail workers is left to confront free-market ideology and its discontents: pay cuts, layoffs, and corporate corruption. Set in 1995, Ken Loach's film is a sad slice of life, though what was at stake in the privatization of British Rail may not resonate much with American audiences, minus the odd Keynesian.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Friendsters of the family

In case you missed it, you'll want to check out Tenaya Darlington's recent Isthmus article about Friendster, which features a luscious color photo of our Bob tonguing our Amy's ear.
Bumper sticker I conceived the other day


Tuesday, October 14, 2003


As I realized out loud the other day, if you know me you know I'm alt-country, I'm alt-weekly, I'm alt-everything.

And as Ereck immediately pointed out, I don't seem very alt-anything.
A man of science

According to the Internet Movie Database, these are the words with which "Late Night With David Letterman" began back in 1982:

Larry "Bud" Melman: Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without just a word of friendly warning. We're about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image -- without reckoning upon God. It's one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you don't care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to...well, we've warned you.